Life on Mars: It’s a violent and dull affair. At least according to Red Planet Blues, the interminable new novel by Robert J. Sawyer, who is by any measure one of the world’s leading (and most interesting) science-fiction writers. It’s a self-styled hard-boiled noir that never quite firms up.
The book is set on a future Mars, where a town called New Klondike thrives under a climate-controlled dome. Most of its citizens were lured by the promise of the Great Martian Fossil Rush, a craze begun when two explorers found remnants of early life forms on Mars, which prove to be exceedingly valuable at home on Earth.
But like the gold rush that populated our terrestrial Klondike, the Martian Fossil Rush hasn’t turned out to be endlessly lucrative. New Klondike is now a boom town gone bust, a frontier outpost whose only still-thriving sector is “transferring,” the process by which one’s consciousness is extracted and placed inside a very realistic (and customized) body of your own choosing, allowing people to live forever. Transfers, as these creations are known, are optimized versions of us; many can see in the dark, have telescopic vision and superhuman strength.
Private investigator Alex Lomax becomes enmeshed in a convoluted plot that involves several of these transfers, along with stolen identities, unrecovered fossils and, rather unexpectedly, a glamorous writer-in-residence. Double-crosses are double-crossed, the secret history of the early fossil rush is revealed, and Lomax learns and grows, but not so much that he’ll abandon his scoundrel ways.
For, at his core, Lomax is a smug and sexist relic of another age. Unfortunately for the reader, he’s also the book’s narrator, which means the book is smug and sexist, too. One could argue that this is Sawyer’s way of appropriating the tone of classic noir – of Raymond Chandler or Carroll John Daly or Dashiell Hammett, whose novel The Maltese Falcon provides an explicit template for Red Planet Blues.
The book’s incessant references to old movies make it clear that Sawyer knows and loves the era. But what in the first half of the 20th century read as swagger projected to obscure masculine anxiety today feels glib and off-putting. The complicated gender and power dynamics of classic hard-boiled detective fiction have also been simplified on the trip to Mars: the book’s female characters are not so much women as various pairs of breasts awaiting Lomax’s lusty appraisal.
At its best, Sawyer’s fiction is a fascinating blend of intellectually compelling big ideas and humane, enduring characters. His recent WWW Trilogy, in which the World Wide Web gains consciousness as an intelligence called Webmind and communicates with Caitlin Decter, the teenage daughter of a professor at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., is one of the most satisfying fictional thought experiments of recent years. He is capable of great empathy and insight, which is what makes Red Planet Blues so disappointing.
It’s further undone by its genre-bending ambition. In theory, setting a detective story in a science-fiction landscape could yield good results – and many good sci-fi novels have had mystery elements at their core. But here the genres divide and conquer themselves, giving us neither a compelling, propulsive detective plot nor a satisfyingly realized future. Instead, we’re left with limp signifiers of both genres: the constant tipping of a theoretical fedora, the tossed-off allusions to interesting technological developments that are never convincingly animated. Sawyer’s greatest strength is his imagination, and he doubly restrains it here, forcing half his book into the set patterns of the hard-boiled ethos while curtailing his sci-fi extrapolations in order to make room for the baggy mystery plot.
It’s a cliché when writing about an unsuccessful novel to say that there’s a good book in there somewhere. But in this case it’s literally true – Red Planet Blues incorporates Sawyer’s celebrated novella Identity Theft, which makes up the novel’s taut, self-contained and energetic first act. In these opening pages, Sawyer sends up noir and sci-fi tropes with glee, and the result is a tight and often funny mini-mystery.
It’s when that action draws to a close and Sawyer is faced with the problem of expanding an elegant, compact bit of genre parody fun into a full-length novel that the trail turns cold. Like any gold rush – or fossil hunt, for that matter – things just can’t end as promisingly as they begin.
Jared Bland is the editor of Globe Books.